"How do you translate the word 'virgin'?" The question, posed by one translator to another, was a linguistic labyrinth even for translators who spend their lives dissecting the minutiae of the Bible.

"Virgin in English is what we think of it now. If you use the St. Jerome translation, based on Latin, virgo meant young girl," began Alexandra Chciuk-Celt, a free-lance translator and writer from Washington, before launching into her question. "Now St. Jerome translated into Latin from Greek. Then parthenos means virgin as we know it, but it was based on Isaiah, and the word 'alma' meant young girl. So it's a double ambiguity. What do you do?"

Ellis Deibler Jr., a tall, thin man with a distinguished shock of gray hair, who has spent time translating the Bible into the language of Papua New Guinea, rubbed his face in frustration and said, "I don't know what to say." Deibler looked to a fellow panelist for help. "You started this," said Clay Johnston, another Bible translation expert. "This is one of the cases of ambiguity where we can stay with the Hebrew ambiguity," decided Deibler, leaving the question unanswered. His audience laughed and applauded.

The world of translators and interpreters, as the 23rd annual national convention of the American Translators Association demonstrated last weekend, ranges from making instant decisions on a word that simply conveys the approximate thought to intricate searching for the precise nuance.

The group, gathered at the Stouffer's National Center Hotel in Crystal City for three days of sessions, even debated its definition of itself. "I like what the head interpreter at the United Nations once said, 'The ideal translator is a person who approaches every situation with an open mouth,' " said Henry Fischbach, one of the founders and a former president of the group. And Charles Stern, a medical and technical translator for the last 60 years, said, "A good translator is a person who knows when they don't know."

In between hallway debates on their craft, the 500 translators tried new computers, swapped dictionaries, sought advice on how to educate commercial book printers, caught up on the latest in simultaneous court interpreting, discussed an "errors and omissions" insurance plan, and had an evening of sushi followed by karaoke, a Japanese style sing-along.

Approximately 10,000 people work as translators in this country. In the 2,300-member association, the majority are scientific translators; the rest are literary translators and teachers. "We have always had trouble getting exact figures. The census does not include it as a category, and many people work part time," said Ben Teague, association president. In the association's 23 years, the interpreters themselves have changed. "At one time the field was dominated by people born abroad or immigrants whose parents spoke Rumanian at dinner. Now it's much more professional," Fischbach said. But the joys haven't changed, he added. Fischbach has been a medical translator for 31 years. He has translated studies on tranquilizers from French to English. "One day is not like the other. It's like the Frenchman Paul Valery said, 'Life would lose all its charm if nothing were left for,' " and Fishbach paused, "let me see, in French it would be, yes, 'for the unexpected.' "

In the profession, a pecking order exists. At the top are the erect, often unsmiling witnesses to parlays between heads of state as well as to other international diplomatic dramas. In Washington, the State Department and World Bank interpeters are the glory people. People who translate literature, such as Gregory Rabassa, the principal English translator of Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez, are also the envy of their colleagues.

Even for the glamorossos who make mistakes, there is defense and pride. "Take Steven Seymour with President Carter at the Warsaw airport. Carter said he had a warm feeling, Seymour said he was lusting," said Walter Haller, a Washington free-lance translator. Haller was recalling the front-page incident with William Park of the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, and Ted Crump of the National Institutes of Health. "Seymour had mixed Russian, Polish, Jewish. So he was using archaic words," Crump said. "The White House should have used a local Pole. That wasn't the first time the presidential interpreter was on the hot seat. When Kennedy was in Berlin in 1962, the interpreter was bilingual but he was English and had to work into German; the press really ringed him," Park said. "The interpreter always gets the blame. Remember during the negotiations in Iran, they said they were having a problem with the translations but that was a smokescreen."

But translators do make mistakes. "It's a very common thing to look at a word and give the antonym. Such as increase and decrease," said Patricia Newman, who works for the Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque, N.M. Ellis Deibler said he was translating a Bible into Gahuku, the language of Papua New Guinea, and was using "good new talk" for "gospel." "A few months later I found out that new talk was an idiom which meant a lie."

In every cluster of translators, whether they were involved in legal or advertising matters, the question of colloquial terms was debated. "We had to translate a brochure for buying property in Florida. In English, the advertising jargon was 'Sunsational.' Impossible to translate into Italian, French, German, Chinese and Japanese," said Eva Berry, the president of a New York-based translators bureau and the incoming president of the group. "We finally decided to say, 'Sensational in the Sun,' in every language."

Alee Alger, a federal court interpreter in San Diego, has had to translate obscenities. "The man jumped up and said in Spanish to the judge, 'F--- your mother.' I had to say it. In court interpreting you are under oath. In a conference you would smooth that over and make your person look good," Alger said.

However, even for those away from the bustle and glamor of the United Nations, intepreting can be fun, and dangerous. Alger told the story of an interpreter at an international conference who was translating the word "latrine" from English to Spanish. He kept using the wrong Spanish for "latrine." So his interpreting partner passed him a note suggesting "W.C." Alger laughed and said, "The first interpreter switched off his mike and said, 'No thanks, you go, I'm okay.' "

Steven Winfield was describing a trial in Boston when the judge ordered the client for whom he was translating gagged. "I had to keep going. Then the guy swung at the officer. The court officer drew his gun. They threw the guy on the floor. I was ducking the swinging arm and the gunfire. But I interpreted right until the end."

"Are you serious?" asked a fellow interpreter incredulously.

"No, not really," Winfield answered.